Thursday, September 12, 2013

Paddling a Swedish Archapelago


Yesterday morning, I loaded my kayaking gear into my day pack, tied my six foot paddle horizontally onto the back in decapitation form, strapped on my helmet and began biking towards Bildal to meet a new friend and a boat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy instructions were simple:  Bike across the zoo with the moose to the highway*.  Follow the path along the right side of the highway.  Continue along the path when it veers away from the highway.  Follow it along the coast.  After one hour, arrive at destination.

After passing through the zoo, I arrived at a gas station and stopped to put air in my tires.  There was no air pump.  But there was a garage and in it a couple of guys were fixing a train.  One of them was going at it with a welder and I watched for a few moments as sparks flew everywhere.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen he stopped he noticed that I was watching and asked me “Swedish swedish swedish swedish?”

“Hi. Do you speak English?  Do you have air that I could put in my tires?”

He went and got a hose.  We chatted some in English as I inflated my tires.  I thanked him for being friendly and helpful, and then headed over to the path along the highway.

The bike path was perfect.  It ran straight to where I needed to go like the highway did, but was largely separated from the loud, ugly, varmint killing, moose bashing, polluting thoroughfare by a narrow but heavy wood.

For a time, I couldn’t even see the highway at all.  Then the path turned sharply to a tunnel under it.  Oh no!  My instructions were to remain on the right side of the highway.  But there was no path on right side, only the one that went under.  

On the other side of the highway there was an intersection in the bike path.  I could go to the right, along the left side of the highway, or to the left, presumably back towards Gothenburg.

So I tried biking on the path on the left side of the highway, but it turned away after just a few moments and I was soon hopelessly lost in suburban Sweden.

I steered wide around pedestrians and other cyclists, so as not to hit them with the paddle that was reaching out like wings on either side of my bike.

At a busy intersection I found a short, round Asian woman who spoke to me in Swedish.  She pulled out her phone to help me, and set me in the right direction.  I found myself back at the spot where the bike tunnel went under the highway.  So I tried again.  I got to the intersection under the tunnel and again took a right.

Walking in the opposite direction along the bike path was an older fellow with dark skin and white hair.  Wearing a windbreaker and sweat pants, he was out for his daily walk.

“Bildall?”  I asked pointing the way that I was going along the left side of the highway.

He didn’t understand.  So I tried a few more times changing my inflection and accent until my pronunciation was close enough.

“Oh, Bildall!”  He said, pleased that we were understanding each other.  He pointed back the way I had come.

“Are you sure?”

“[Come with me]” he motioned, waving with his hand.

Back at the intersection at the tunnel’s exit, he showed me a sign with the names of towns on it and arrows.  He told me which towns on the sign Bildall was between. He was sending me the way that I thought was back to Gothenburg.  

I had trouble believing what he was telling me.  I doubted I had passed Billdal.  But he insisted, so I paid attention to his hard work at English and went the way he showed me.

After a few minutes of pedaling, I looked up at the sky.  It was noon and the sun wasn’t that far from the horizon —directly ahead of me.  I was going south, towards Bildall.  The highway that I passed under must not have been the one I was trying to follow.

The bike path veered away from the highways through a town and then along the coast.  I stopped to take some pictures.  Islands carved and calmed the blue sea.  Forests, boulders and even horses gave the land definition and character.  There was almost no obvious intrusion of man beyond the bike path and the marinas, whose sailboats seemed to be natural creatures with lives of their own.  I was surrounded by wild coastal beauty of a kind and magnitude that does not exist in the overly developed places where I have lived.

I arrived at my destination.  A house, set back from the road by a long driveway between other homes, distinguished itself with a trailer loaded three high and four wide with kayaks.  My host’s father came down the path to greet me enthusiastically.  The grandfather of two carried an enormous load of pruned green branches on his shoulder.  He showed me the kayak, a Tahe Greenland T, that I had been invited to use.  With lots of smiles, he set me up with a chart and a spray skirt, told me where to put in and that I should have a good time.

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My host runs a kayaking business near Gothenburg and from the looks of it, does a pretty incredible job.

I geared up, put the Tahe on my shoulder, and walked the hundred meters to the water.  I had four hours to paddle on my own before joining my host and a group of novices for a tour.

The boat behaved beautifully.  It turned when I edged it and went straight when I didn’t.  It’s not as fast as my Nelo Inuk, but it’s close and handles like a dream.  All white with sharp curves, it's also pretty.  

I needed to roll it.  It was a new boat for me, and If I was going to feel comfortable, then I needed to roll it, once on each side.  I stuck my hand in the water to feel the temperature.  It felt like I was in Sweden.

I hesitated, then rolled twice.  It’s the easiest boat I have ever rolled.  I was cold. But it was a sunny day and as I began to paddle, I warmed up.  

I paddled between islands and found more islands.  The archipelago was a maze.  Past every corner was a view of waters snaking between rocky, grassy hills.  With only a turn of the head, a whole other set of forested islands appeared.  Herons, geese, swans, and ducks hopped off of boulders rising from the sea as I approached.  And then there’d be another island that would stand out because the sea cut through the middle of it like a lightning bolt, a particularly high precipice covered in dark green moss, or a small little shack that looked as though it had been standing there since time immemorial.

I got out to climb to the top of particularly tall island.  While exiting my boat, I put my hand on a rock to steady myself.  I heard a sound between a squeak and hiss as I saw, out of the corner of my eye, something scurry away from the rock.  I yanked my hand back, but the creature, whatever it was, was gone.  I climbed to the top, over boulders and around bushes, and surveyed the thick archipelago around me. It was unlike any natural beauty I had ever seen.

Jellyfish bobbed everywhere.  I slid my Greenland storm paddle - this is the small one I built myself, and with each stroke I adjust my grip from one end of the paddle to the other - into the water and half way through the stroke the paddle stabbed a sponge.  I must have hit a jellyfish.  The blade rose from the water and I slid my hands to the just submerged blade to prep for the next stroke on the other side.  I gripped jelly goo.

On one island there was a small red shack and an old man sat outside of it.  He didn’t speak a word of English, but I communicated easily enough my request that he take a picture of me by holding up the camera and saying “click.”  He fiddled around with the digital camera for a while, trying to look through the lens that wasn’t there and not seeing the screen, probably on account of the glare.  I suspect he had never used a digital camera before.  Eventually, he pointed it vaguely in the right direction and pressed the button to turn it off.

I thanked him graciously and told him the picture was perfect as he handed the camera back to me.  I appreciated his effort and felt bad that my camera was too confusing for him.

Then I paddled to my put-in and got out to go meet my host back at the house.  As I walked, I saw some blackberries that weren’t quite ripe yet and a blue, almost grape-like fruit that looked tasty.  It wasn’t on a vine, so probably not a grape.  Still, I thought I had better try it to check if it was tasty, or poisonous. The fruit were sweet and bitter.  I didn’t keel over and die.

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When I did meet my host, Mikael, he welcomed me warmly.  We chatted about kayaking in the area, kayaks, paddles, and some of the kayaking superstars he’d met over the years. He showed me his traditional style carbon fiber Greenland paddle and even let me try it when we were on the water.  It was very light and smooth, but a little awkward as I was used to the feel of my homemade storm paddle.  I switched back, and was soon slimed by another jellyfish.  My wrists were red and irritated.  The jellyfish slime was probably poisonous and dripping down my arms.  I tried to ignore it.  Confound it, I like my storm paddle and am sticking with it.

Out on the water, Mikael invited me to help teach the inexperienced paddlers the tour and I was pleased to offer forward stroke pointers.  Mikael guided us through some impressive crevices to some of the more fascinating islands.  We took a break on a crescent island and snacked while admiring a rainbow in the distance.

The sun set.  We paddled back, put the boats away, and my day was over.  Well, I still had to bike back, and in the dark after decent people weren’t out anymore, I got lost.  There was nobody to ask directions.  I went the wrong way for a while before I found a sign that said “Goteborg”.  I followed it to another sign, and then after a while another, and eventually I arrived home.

Thank you so much Mikael for one of the best paddles I’ve ever had.

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*Editor: Moose in Sweden know how to bike? Best biking partner ever!


  1. Great Writing Dov. Welcome back. My pleasure, too.

  2. Thank you. I was definitely inspired. I would love to come back, but I'll be leaving for Italy on Wednesday.

  3. Good luck and thanks for the great advices. It was valueable for a newbie like me.

  4. It was a real pleasure! Remember to keep rotating your torso.